English National Ballet
Streamed archive recording of October 2018 performance at the Manchester Opera House. Relay 24 June 2020
Part of ENB’s #WednesdayWatchParty, #ENBatHome series
English National Ballet (ENB) acquired Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon 12 years ago in sets and costumes borrowed from the Royal Danish Ballet’s 2003 production with designs by Mia Stensgaard. Her minimalist sets are better suited for touring than Nicholas Georgiadis’s weighty structures for the Royal Ballet’s production, dating back to 1974 (with subsequent revisions). ENB’s audiences on tour, unfamiliar with Manon, did not flock to the box offices: it lapsed from the repertoire until Tamara Rojo took over as artistic director and launched a triumphant revival in 2018.
ENB’s archive recording from the Manchester Opera House in 2018 features the first cast of Alina Cojocaru as Manon, Joseph Caley as Des Grieux and Jeffrey Cirio as Lescaut. Cojocaru had danced the role of Manon Lescaut with the Royal Ballet since 2003; the rest of the cast were making their debuts. This in-house video (filmed by Jérome Monnot and edited by Laurent Liotardo) is the only record of their performances. Not intended for public screening, it leaves in view the black light box at the front of the stage: vital equipment for touring to different theatres, it controls the lights used in the production (lighting design by Mikki Kuntu).
Archive recordings are not the equivalent of DVDs or other commercial formats. In any case, the quality of ‘live’ relays to viewers’ homes depends not only the recording but also the recipients’ equipment. Sound and lighting levels, or dancing that appears out of sync with the music might be caused by technical problems. What we are fortunate to be able to witness in these constrained times is an intimate record of otherwise fleeting performances by exceptional artists.
Cojocaru’s interpretation of her roles has always varied according to the casts she dances with and her rethinking of the characters’ motives. She has said that she had to find a way of liking Manon, as well as understanding her. Partnered by Caley, whose Des Grieux appears very puppyish, she makes Manon seem young and insecure rather than amoral. Instead of ruthlessly seizing her opportunity to become a kept woman by Monsieur G.M, she doesn’t fully realise what she is letting herself in for.
Her Manon discovers herself as she dances, her phrasing of the choreography to Massenet’s music seemingly impulsive. With Caley’s smitten Des Grieux in the first act, she finds out what it feels like to be lifted ecstatically, to fall in love and surrender to her hitherto hidden sensuality. He responds by being enraptured by her. Caley doesn’t dwell on the extended lines of his développés and arabesques, as some male dancers do, but addresses his dancing entirely to her.
Fond of her rogue of a brother, she trusts Cirio’s sharp-witted Lescaut to play a tantalising game with her and Monsieur G.M. Emboldened, she tries sitting on the end of the bed and exposing her thigh – and it works! She gets to keep the coat and the necklace, but she’s not fully committed to what they entail. Camera close-ups reveal her uncertainty as she glances back at the bed, her shoulders unaccustomed to the weight of the fur coat.
Her entry into the hôtel particulier party scene in Act II indicates that she is neither happy nor assured. Because Cojocaru is so tiny, her face so small, her expressions can be hard to read from a distance in a large theatre. Here, seen in close-up, trussed up in a lavish opera cape, she’s putting up a pretence. James Streeter’s Monsieur G.M bears a disconcerting resemblance to Glenn Close as Madame de Mertueil in the 1988 film of Les Liasons dangéreuses – white-faced with a powdered white wig. Like Madame M, he is a manipulator, toying with his protégée.
Cojocaru’s range of nuanced emotions as she dances for the disreputable revellers is revelatory. She starts off with a polite smile for her ‘protector’ and sets out to assert herself as the belle of the ballroom. Discomfited by Des Grieux’s presence, she entwines her arms above her head as if recalling her embraces with him. Her feet flicker in and out uncertainly as she moves between him and Monsieur G.M, trying to work out who she is and what she really wants. The choreography becomes her hesitant internal monologue, the action freezing around her as she performs a seductive dance she doesn’t mean. Conflicted, she spins into the arms of a stranger, a client she doesn’t even know.
He passes her around among other clients like a trophy, her leg upraised as her head and arms dangle down. The manhandling comes closer to abuse than any other brothel routine I’ve seen in countless Manons. Ashamed, she pulls away from Des Grieux’s hold as he catches her. She’s delivered to Monsieur G.M’s knee for the reward of a bracelet – a humiliation that will be repeated after her rape by the gaoler in Act III.
My reservations about ENB’s Act II in this screening are mainly to do with inappropriate costumes. Manon shouldn’t be dressed in virginal white, and the prostitutes’ outfits, with the lower ranks in pastel puffball skirts, are silly, as are their antics. Caley leaves his mouth open too often, acting befuddled and out of his depth, though he dances Des Grieux’s solo of pain sincerely and well. The camera, alas, doesn’t catch Cojocaru’s expression as she succumbs to his pleas and decides to help him – a key moment for any Manon’s change of mind.
Cojocaru finds a way of keeping Manon likeable in the Act II bedroom scene, when she doesn’t taunt Des Grieux with the bracelet so much as tease him. Why should it matter? She quite enjoys provoking their first row as lovers, knowing he will forgive her. She’s not innately wilful or greedy. Caley vents his frustration on the bracelet, not on her, though he knows they are wasting valuable time. When they are caught, the killing of her brother in front of her will start to break her spirit.
By the time Manon and Des Grieux disembark from the ship transporting the deportees, she is a wraith of her former self. When the penal colony’s gaoler (Fabien Reimar, callously repellent) forces himself on her, she is in the throes of a nervous breakdown. The camera shows that she is already hallucinating as she grabs the dagger but can’t bring herself to finish off her abuser.
In the final pas de deux in the swamp (dry ice and smoke on a blackened stage), she is far gone. Unlike some Manons – Sylvie Guillem in particular – she is not defying death but falling desperately into her lover’s arms. He is her last remaining certainty. A trustworthy partner, Caley catches her so weightlessly that he loses track of the moment she’s lifeless. A truly tragic ending to the ballet, and the archive recording.
En route, there are fine performances by Cirio and Katja Khaniukova as Lescaut’s spirited mistress. They appear to have a back-story together, a relationship revealed in the way she indulges his drunken incompetence in the brothel ballroom with real, if tipsy, affection. True, he slaps her face near the start of Act I, reminding her that she risks the fate of the deported prostitutes in the cage trundling past in the background. The recording makes the incident clearer than it is in the Royal Ballet’s production, where the cart tends to go unnoticed in the bustling crowd scene. The mistress doesn’t appear among the gaggle of female prisoners on the quayside in Act III, so she’s canny enough to have escaped conviction. Such detailed information is one of the virtues of ENB’s decision to let us see their archive treasures, however briefly, before they are stored away.